There is no bigger event in Abu Dhabi this year than the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019.
It's a huge deal for the UAE and is set to leave a lasting legacy.
We speak to the event's Chief Strategic Officer, Rala Al Ramahi about the difference she hopes the Games will make.
Are you excited now that the games are so close?
Yes, for us this is the final stretch. This will be the largest games since the competition started 50 years ago and we are bringing the world to Abu Dhabi, over 190 countries to be exact. 20 will be participating for the first time ever in a Special Olympics World Games, so that is quite historic.
What does it mean for the athletes to be participating in such a huge event?
The regional Special Olympic Games happened last March, so we have already seen the happiness that emanates from these athletes when they’re on the podium and the sense of pride the parents have from watching their son or daughter achieve something like this. The families have told us how much their children’s lives have changed through participating in the Games. They have become much more social and they have a sense of belonging in their community. This is really important as many of them have never had a place where they can feel like they can just be themselves and be celebrated for that. That is quite significant for a lot of our athletes.
Why is this such a significant event for Abu Dhabi?
This event is really a platform to create a global conversation about inclusion, and also to push for more inclusion in the UAE and across the world. It brings the world together to support one cause and to celebrate these athletes. It’s probably the first time that many of these athletes have been recognised for their talent in sports at a global level and on a global stage. It’s quite momentous for the athletes and their families and friends.
Have you also been getting the local schools involved?
We’re trying to get perceptions towards people with intellectual disabilities to change by engaging with the youth of Abu Dhabi and also teachers and families. Many of our schools still aren’t as inclusive as we’d like them to be, many are hesitant because they think they’re not equipped to accept students with intellectual disabilities. So we have selected 20 mainstream schools and about 10 special needs centres, and joined them together through a special programme. We will also carry on running after-school sessions after the Games have finished, these will be open to parents and students and they’re designed to raise awareness of disability in education. Students with and without disabilities have also been playing on the same sports teams as this helps break down barriers. It will probably be the first time that many of them have played with a student who has an intellectual disability.
Why do you think that Abu Dhabi is such a good place to host the World Games?
The UAE is already a global nation, as we have over 200 nationalities who live here. The UAE has also been progressive in thinking about the causes that are important for the region, whether it’s inclusion or the empowerment of women. This is the first time that the Special Olympics World Games has been hosted in the Middle East and North Africa region, and that says something about Abu Dhabi’s efforts and commitment to the cause.
What can we expect from the opening ceremony?
I can’t reveal a lot, but people should expect a lot of exciting surprises and a lot of celebrities as well. One of the highlights will be the athletes’ parade and a lot of the UAE’s leadership will also be present including His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. He is the patron of the event and he has been really involved from day one.
What are you looking forward to the most?
I love watching gymnastics even though I have never practised it before. It’s also exciting watching some of the teams because many are inclusive and have people with and without disabilities playing together.
I don’t think any other event offers this kind of inclusion.
Can people still volunteer to help out?
Unfortunately our registration has closed for volunteers but people can still sign up for Fans in Stands, which is just about coming and being a part of the event. I would always encourage people to come and cheer on everyone who is participating.
Are you hopeful that this will lead to more global events happening in Abu Dhabi?
Yes hopefully, but this event isn’t just about sports, it also has a very strong social cause. Abu Dhabi is very interested in future events that are very much tied to social causes that the UAE can also spearhead.